Ken Welch takes blows as St. Pete mayoral candidates square off in first debate
Image via city of St. Pete.

St. Pete Marina
Candidates took aim at frontrunner Ken Welch.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates met Tuesday in their first debate, setting the tone for the race as candidates get into full campaign mode.

Moderators prompted the eight candidates on pressing decisions facing the city, including the state of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Trop site and policing.

Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch faced several jabs from fellow candidates, including former Rep. Wengay Newton and St. Pete City Council member Robert Blackmon during the debate, indicating opponents are targeting him after poll results released the same day showed Welch with a comfortable lead.

“Commissioner Welch was the Commissioner for 20 years, and the problem got no better under his leadership in South St. Pete, so why should we expect any different now?” Blackmon asked when talking about gun violence in the city.

“Well, I think if you talk to the people in the community who’ve seen me for 20 years (work) to create an APAD (adult pre-arrest diversion) program that more than 4,000 people have gone through to avoid being arrested,” Welch responded. “We have the … most effective juvenile diversion program in the state. The Times has reported on that. And so we’ve been working on this issue. I don’t know where Mr. Blackmon has been, but I’ve been in the trenches, working with the people in the community.”

Newton leveled similar criticism at Welch, but Welch, given time to rebut, instead again focused on his record.

The fate of the Rays was a hot topic for the candidates. The fate of the Rays is uncertain, and city officials are anticipating a major new development on the Tropicana Field site whether the team stays or goes. While all candidates want to keep the team in St. Petersburg, the Rays are also considering a part-time partnership with Montreal.

“If the Tampa Bay market didn’t already have Major League Baseball, we’d be at the top of the list as a desirable place for baseball to come,” said St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice. “As Mayor, I will put our city first, and I don’t want to give away the store, but I do want to listen to the Rays. I’m certainly going to work collaboratively with them.”

“We should keep the Rays here,” Newton said. “If the St. Pete taxpayers have to pay for this, our names need to be on that new stadium. I think that’s the best way to do it.”

Welch addressed the Rays issue in terms of value, saying that while they are important to the area, the main focus should remain the proper redevelopment of the Trop site and on community input.

“I certainly believe the Rays can be successful in St. Petersburg. I believe this is about relationships, it’s about return on investment to the taxpayers, but it’s also about the reality,” Welch said. “The reality of Tropicana Field and that this is a once in a generation opportunity, we ought to be intentional about making sure that redevelopment reflects our values.”

A large section of the city’s Black community was displaced from what was a robust African American community when Tropicana Field was first developed decades ago. Surviving residents of that area, and their descendants, want to see their community honored, and benefitted, from the redevelopment — a priority Welch has also expressed.

Blackmon, meanwhile, looked at the future of the mores practically.

“They’ve been good corporate partners and they’ve supported a lot of charities in our city, and I’d like to see that stadium site reimagined with the consolidation between the Rowdies and the Rays in one stadium,” he said. The Rays also own the Rowdies, a professional soccer team that has a waterfront stadium that could be redeveloped south of Tropicana Field.

Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman has been aggressively pursuing a development deal for the Trop site and shortlisted two teams with plans to develop both with and without a stadium. City Council has so far hit the pause button with moving forward with either development team. Debate moderators Steve Contorno, the Times’ political editor, and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory, asked whether candidates would continue the selection process where Kriseman left off or start anew with their own process.

An overwhelming majority said they would start fresh, including Newton, Blackmon, Pete Boland, Torry Nelson and Marcile Powers, who said she would put the matter to a vote among St. Pete residents.

“We need to start back over,” Blackmon said. “I know that the community has not had a seat at the table. At the end of the day, we need to make sure this development is community-minded and keeps the citizens-first mentality. We need to start back over because we’re wasting time, emotions and money on the project that will never come to fruition in its current state.”

Welch and Rice, along with USF-St. Pete student Michael Ingram, said that while they were not opposed to having a newer starting point, they would still look at the work that has already been done by Kriseman and at the two firms currently on the shortlist.

“I’m not compelled to stick with those two finalists, but I do want to say that a lot of foundational work has been done in laying out the 21 principles and speaking to housing and equity and jobs, and I don’t think that is lost work,” Welch said.

“This decision should definitely be made by the incoming Mayor, but that doesn’t mean the consideration for the two that have been narrowed down by Kriseman should be taken away,” Ingram said. “This is a decision for the people of St. Pete.”

All the candidates seemed to agree on one topic: they all said they did not want to privatize the St. Pete Marina. City Council members are currently scheduled to consider whether to allow a private developer, selected by the Kriseman administration, take over the marina. If approved, the matter would go before St. Pete voters in November.

“I think the city is very capable of managing it itself, and bringing in a management company instead of a for-profit company from Tennessee that deals with fresh water not salt water,” Boland said, referencing the Safe Harbor Development proposal.

“It’s been an asset that’s been paid into by the public, we should have a management company so that we can become smarter and get more money for our citizens, but in no way should a public asset be privatized, because it’s our waterfront, it’s all the citizens’ waterfront,” Blackmon said.

“Absolutely not,” Rice added. “No one here has more experience in working on waterfront charter protections, and the waterfront master plan — absolutely nothing should be privatized.”

The debate will rebroadcast on Spectrum Bay News 9 at 7 p.m.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


  • Edward Lyle

    June 26, 2021 at 6:00 pm

    So… Welch (a man of color) is a racist, and the gender confused chic is the smartest person in the world… oh, and she bartends just like AOC…

    … got it… :-/

  • monday

    June 27, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    I can remember when saint pete was a reasonable place to live until they said no more reasonable rates and all to be bulldozed. homeless needs to move for the baseball team money and politics you know now all the charities for what i believe is for reinvention yourself I left and again leaving.

Comments are closed.


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